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The Secret of Saint Laurent's Success

In the three years since Hedi Slimane took the reins at Saint Laurent, the brand has more than doubled its sales revenue. What’s the secret?
Julia Nobis for Saint Laurent | Source: Saint Laurent
  • Robin Mellery-Pratt

LONDON, United Kingdom — "Before the re-launch we had a very small footwear business. Now Saint Laurent is one of our top ten [brands] at Barneys," said Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer and senior executive vice president of Barneys New York. "We took a very big risk, without any history, but Saint Laurent has been such a huge success for us and a fantastic return on our investment."

Vitale's experience is far from unique. "We've seen triple-digit growth for Lane Crawford stores," said Lianna Mann, vice president of womenswear, home and jewellery at the Chinese department store group, commenting on the success of their Saint Laurent business since the appointment of Hedi Slimane as creative director in March 2012.

The rise of our business with Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent can only be described as meteoric.

“The rise of our business with Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent can only be described as meteoric,” added Justin O’Shea, buying director of European luxury e-tailer, owned by Neiman Marcus.

From the ashes of an incendiary debut, which sharply divided the industry due to the heavy handling of the house’s rebrand (which saw the first name of the house’s celebrated founder, ‘Yves,’ stripped from the company’s ready-to-wear line), Hedi Slimane has led the house to spectacular results. In the three years since he took the creative reins, the brand has more than doubled annual sales revenue to €707 million in 2014 (about $787 million), up from €353 million in 2011.

So what’s the formula to Slimane’s success?

"While much of what's talked about around the label focuses on the message and the mood, for us the focus remains on the product. It appeals to a much wider demographic than much of the fashion press would have people believe,” said Judd Crane, director of womenswear and accessories at London department store Selfridges.

Saint Laurent Spring/Summer 2015 | Source: Saint Laurent

“The reason behind their success is because all categories are desirable and over performing. This is their biggest strength. There are not too many luxury designers where the ready-to-wear is as strong as the shoes or bags,” said O’Shea. Indeed, 2014 financial results for Saint Laurent, posted by parent company Kering, show that leather goods and shoes represent 66 percent of the business, but that ready-to-wear was the fastest growing of any category, surging ahead by 23 percent last year.

Mario Ortelli, senior European luxury goods analyst at Bernstein nods to “the successful development of leather goods with a couple of it-bags” as an important factor in the brand’s success. Slimane has also created a number of cult shoes, specifically the Paris and Janis styles and the men’s Jodhpur boot, as well as reworking the famous Tribute.

But one of the biggest differentiating factors of the Saint Laurent formula is Slimane’s approach to ready-to-wear, which upends the idea that clothing made for the catwalk is less about sales and more about image. “It’s luxury but super basic items such as tailored jackets, bikers, bombers, denims, which are quite rare in the current market. We attribute its success to this,” said Maiko Shibata, creative director of Japanese concept retailer Restir Inc.

"Hedi has built up the casualwear product categories and renewed the brand's tailoring offer. Our business with denim, tees, leather and knitwear accounts for close to a third of the brand's sales. Also very prominent are jackets, which also makes up close to a third of the brand's business in Lane Crawford. He's created category champions that serve as a core part of the business," echoed Mann.

A master of riffing on established codes and reinventing recognised tropes with an unerring eye for modernity, Slimane gives his consumers thoroughly digestible fashion, perfectly executed. “All categories are performing, but the ready-to-wear has been nothing short of incredible; an all around success story for Barneys,” added Vitale.

Slimane’s achingly cool shows, put on at great expense in Paris each season with a cast of razor-thin, music-scene misfits and spine-tinglingly soundtracks, inject his collections with a sense of nowness and newness. But unlike many of his competitors, who deliver thematically-driven collections that shift from one season to the next, Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent shows are consistently filled with over 50 looks of desirable, on-trend pieces, from jeans to tees to python blazers — all exceptionally wearable, saleable and aesthetically consistent.

And, with the exception of his debut, which critics both praised and denigrated for being a reverential take on Yves Saint Laurent’s greatest hits, Slimane has crafted each of his collections for the house as an exploration of a specific musical subculture, released, almost, chronologically — from rockabilly to Teddy Boy to glam-rock, psych-rock and LA grunge — creating both a sense of continuity and unity.

Saint Laurent Spring/Summer 2015 campaign | Source: Saint Laurent

The consistency of the approach has enabled Slimane and Francesca Belletini, the brand’s chief executive, to roll out a “permanent collection,” which includes biker jackets, baby doll dresses, pussy bows, duffle coats, trenches, skinny jeans, black sweatshirts, hoodies and high-tops, which are always available, season after season. “Overall growth [at Saint Laurent] was driven by the success of both permanent lines… and new introductions across categories,” revealed Kering’s 2014 report.

Saint Laurent also offers consumers value for money, with classic "investment pieces" that don't go out of style and are competitively priced. To be clear, Saint Laurent is far from inexpensive: a classic leather biker jacket can cost upwards of $4000. But, according to Ortelli, "the price points ‎are more affordable than comparable brands like Balmain, Givenchy, The Row and Louis Vuitton in ready-to-wear and more affordable in leather goods than the new range of leather bags from Louis Vuitton, Valentino and Bottega Veneta."

Communications have also played a key role in Saint Laurent’s success. “Smaller brands wanting a buzz and a big footprint despite their size disadvantage need to stand out on their ability to innovate and shake the industry. This is exactly what Slimane has been able to achieve,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.

Yet, critically, in 2012, the year Slimane joined the brand, Saint Laurent also ramped up advertising spend, releasing a number of black-and-white images of louche indie rock stars and models. “As a smaller brand, Saint Laurent has to invest a significantly larger portion of its sales in communication to get the same share of voice of larger brands,” said Solca. And, indeed, in relative terms, Saint Laurent out-spent all of its rivals in 2012, dedicating the equivalent of 7 percent of its sales revenue to advertising, according to data compiled by Exane BNP Paribas.

2012 statistics compiled from company data, industry interviews and Exane BNP Paribas analysis & estimates | Source: Exane BNP Paribas

Saint Laurent has also made its product more available to consumers than some of its competitors, doing a healthy wholesale business in top-tier department stores and multi-brand boutiques, which, together, make up 39 percent of its revenue. What's more, in recent years, Saint Laurent has invested heavily in its retail network. The brand's rollout of 13 new stores last year alone is on par with that of brands with revenues almost five times as large, such as Burberry.

Importantly, Slimane has also opened up the brand to a younger clientele. “When Hedi took over, he transformed the house to create a younger, rock and roll grunge aesthetic for the brand,” said Lane Crawford’s Mann. “Our customer base that buys Saint Laurent has changed after rebranding, especially for men’s. There is a devoted clientele who loves Hedi’s creation. It has been totally refreshed and we have much younger customers,” added Shibata.

Jake Smallwood and Jack Dalby for Saint Laurent Autumn/Winter 2015 | Source: Saint Laurent

Many of these younger consumers come for the so-called ‘Cult of Hedi,’ a devoted fashion tribe, which has followed Slimane throughout his career, from Yves Saint Laurent menswear to Dior Homme and back to Saint Laurent.

“Its Hedi’s way or the high way. He has created a movement rather than a trend. He has divided the fashion world by taking such a radical approach to his Saint Laurent and its only when you have emotions of ‘love’ or ‘hate’ that you truly create dedication and patriotism. He is a genius,” said O’Shea.

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